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Gov. Evers Has Unusual Supporters, Vocal Critics For His Plan To Expand Milwaukee's I-94 Freeway

I-94 in Milwaukee
Chuck Quirmbach
Traffic moves along I-94, near American Family Field in July 2020.

Plans to update and expand a stretch of the I-94 freeway on Milwaukee’s west side have been revived under Gov. Tony Evers.

The plans, which were originally proposed by former Gov. Scott Walker, span from 70th street to 16th street. The construction would add an additional lane of traffic traveling each way and remove all left lane exits to be replaced by safer right lane exits.

The entire plan would cost around $1 billion, a majority of which would come from the federal government.

Tom Daykin reports on commercial development for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and says while there are vocal opponents and supporters of the project, everyone agrees something needs to be done about this stretch of freeway.

“It’s one of those many infrastructure projects we have in this country that need to be attended to. There’s also a general agreement that left hand exits and entrances on interchanges are generally less safe than right hand entrances and exits,” he says.

Evers finds himself amongst unlikely company as Republican state Legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, have come out in support of the project. Other supporters include the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and local labor unions as they say the project would help boost the city’s economy.

“To accommodate more traffic and not just local traffic, people commuting to and from their jobs, but also truck traffic. The proponents talk about that stretch of freeway when it comes to handling trucks that ship goods in and out of Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Daykin says.

The stretch of road has also experienced higher rates of crashes, which supports say would be remedied by adding lanes and eliminating left lane exits.

But not everyone is onboard with this project.

LISTEN: Amid Talk Of I-94 'Modernization,' Story Hill And Other Freeway Neighbors Raise Concerns

Daykin says there are several reasons people in Milwaukee stand in opposition to the project, one being the price — especially the estimated $250 to $300 million that would need to be spent on expanding the footprint of the freeway.

“The other factors that are motivating the opponents go to the environmental impacts and frankly, the racial equity impacts,” he says.

From an environmental impact, Daykin says spending money on expanding I-94 will lead to more auto emission — one of the biggest factors when it comes to climate change. Instead, environmentalists would like to see funds be put towards efforts like expanding mass transit.

“There’s also the racial equity issue, in that, freeways in Milwaukee and other cities have traditionally affected our Black and brown residents more than other people. They tend to live to closer to some of the neighborhoods that were eradicated to build the original freeways,” he says.

Daykin says Black residents in Milwaukee are also less likely to own a car and thus, less likely to be able to take advantage of this investment.

The Biden administration has already paused a similar effort in Houston when residents raised concerns about equity and environmental impact.

He says the state is hoping that because this project was already approved by the federal government in 2017 that it won’t have to go through the extensive process to get it reapproved and that a decision from the federal government could be expected sometime in 2021.

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Tom Daykin has been covering commercial development at the Journal Sentinel since 1995.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.